Misty-eyed on a search for gorillas in Bwindi

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Bwindi Impenetrable

National Park, Uganda

You wake up fast when there's a 400-pound gorilla standing outside your tent.

"Ruth!" I called over in something of a whisper-yell to the woman in the tent next to mine. "Ruth! Wake up! There's a gorilla out here!"

The male silverback mountain gorilla was only about 20 feet away. I inched my way out into the cool mist of the morning. The stench of the animals cut through the crisp air.

The silverback noticed me, looked right at me but kept to his breakfast of leaves. Nine gorillas in all, including a couple of tiny babes clutching their moms, climbed trees, picked leaves and fruits and didn't mind us humans in the slightest. It was 6 a.m., and my day of gorilla watching was just beginning.

I'd come to southern Uganda just to see the endangered mountain gorillas, and the experience was already exceeding my expectations. By day's end I would hike deep into the jungle and sit in the middle of 15 more of the primates while they napped, ate, played and stared back at me with their deep brown soulful eyes.

Bwindi, known as the Impenetrable Forest for its thick jungle growth, sits in the precarious corner of mountainous land where Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) come together.

The region usually conjures up thoughts of guerrillas instead of gorillas, and that apprehension is warranted. Civil wars and regional conflicts keep these three countries perpetually locked in a state of high alert and ill ease. Soldiers with machine guns and questionable allegiances have been lurking in the dense mountain forests around Bwindi for years. And a brutal attack in 1999 that left eight Western tourists dead at Bwindi nearly ended Uganda's hopes for its budding eco-tourism industry.

But since then, the Ugandan government and several nonprofit research and conservation groups from around the world have made a herculean effort to regain a sense of safety and security around Bwindi, where half of the world's dwindling population of mountain gorillas lives.

Now Uganda boasts a growing tourism industry, and a trip to experience such a rare wildlife encounter can be surprisingly manageable even for a first-time Africa traveler.

The renewed attention to security is essential around Bwindi, not only to attract tourist dollars but also to ensure a safe environment for the mountain gorillas. The Ugandan villagers who live around Bwindi impressed me with their genuine concern for the creatures.

For two years before my visit, I'd lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and had traveled extensively in regions rich with wildlife where the local communities ignored the need to protect rare or endangered species.

In parts of Zambia, many of the local people, struggling for their own survival, are cynical about Westerners who roll in with unimaginable riches to invest money on wildlife programs while the people languish. A wildlife management program takes time to develop, and until the economic rewards are obvious, it can be a hard sell to a community that survives on poached meat and black-market game hunting.

In Uganda, I sensed that something good had taken root. Several successful community programs were launched in the early 1990s when gorilla-tracking was first opened to tourism at Bwindi. A Peace Corps volunteer who had been based here helped develop the "community campground" where I stayed for three nights. The campground, a lush terraced slope of thatched bandas (huts) and cleared tent spaces beside the national park entrance, is run by the local Buganda people. It is managed so that a significant percentage of the campground proceeds is returned to the community to support a women's cooperative market and an orphans' center.

Villagers around Bwindi told me that poaching still happens but that it's not as much a problem as it used to be. I'm not so sure that's true, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority assures travelers that policing in the area has been increased in the last few years. A few days after my visit, I learned that a female gorilla had been shot and her baby stolen by poachers the same day I'd been with the gorillas. Some said the animals were shot for meat; others said the baby was probably sold on the black market.

Few permits issuedOn the morning of my scheduled trek, we weren't supposed to have seen the gorillas already.

The group that provided the early-morning wake-up call had been lingering around the park entrance for several days, much to the dismay of wildlife rangers.

But through word of mouth — and a few "gorilla tips" leaflets — we knew the do's and don'ts of gorilla-watching: Stay calm, don't make any threatening noises or movements. And if you're lucky, a gorilla might approach you gently, out of curiosity.

We watched for about an hour as the group went through our camp, climbed trees, ate leaves and moved on. We were thrilled by the unexpected encounter.

It was finally time to trek off into the mountains in search of another group. To minimize the effects of human contact on the primates' habitat, only 12 gorilla-trekking permits are issued per day, at $250 apiece plus park fees, all of which must be purchased well in advance from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. The permits can be arranged through travel groups and agencies as well.

A permit doesn't guarantee a gorilla encounter. More than 300 mountain gorillas are estimated to live in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, but it's a thick jungle, and some tracking groups search all day without finding them.

We started off down a long dirt road into the park, accompanied by two other travelers, two trackers (guides) and two armed guards, one far ahead and one just behind us.

The road narrowed, and then we cut off onto a jungle path that carried us up and down and around, into a dark forest area where our guides told us about beautiful rare birds and butterflies while I fought away thoughts of giant snakes, scorpions and army ants. We hopped over mountain streams and climbed around precarious boulders, always keeping our voices down as we listened for the gorillas.

The gorilla trackers and park guides are Ugandans who grew up in the area, and their knowledge of the terrain, flora and fauna was impressive. Our lead tracker had spent months following and sitting with the group of gorillas we were tracking. With satellite tracking devices, other trackers mark where the animals nest for the night. They don't roam far in a day — usually no more than a mile — so chances are good that tourist groups will find the gorillas within a few hours.

Our guide heard them first, a low rustling in the trees just beyond us. We stopped in our tracks, hearts pounding as the adrenaline hit.

Sure, we had seen gorillas in our camp in the morning, but now we were in their territory, and anything could happen.

Accustomed to humansThe gorillas spotted us immediately, and a few of the 15 scurried off to a safer distance, but most acted indifferent. For years, the trackers had conditioned the animals to human presence.

Following our guide's instruction, we crouched in the brush, kept silent and simply observed.

Not far away was this group's silverback, a huge male that clearly directed the movements of the family. (Silverbacks, named for the silvery-gray patch of hair on their backs, are mature males.) He kept a close eye on us while he sat pulling leaves from a bush.

One younger gorilla played the class clown, swinging among branches and apparently having a great time. Some were sprawled out, napping. Others just meandered around us, eating leaves and checking us out.

When tour books call such an experience "magical" and "enchanting," I'm usually skeptical, but I'm at a loss for a better description. Still, I wondered how magical the encounter was for the gorillas. They must figure the tourists' arrival into their daily routine. And they must wonder what on earth these hairless beasts are so curious about.

It's impossible not to feel the evolutionary connection with the gorillas as they go about their ordinary, familiar activities: toddlers running around and jumping into Mom's arms; adolescents doing acrobatics in the trees with a mischievous glint in their eyes; Dad watching over everything.

No wonder Dian Fossey fought with such passion to protect the gorillas. In 1985, the famed researcher was killed — it's thought she was slain by poachers — in mountains like these in Rwanda. Her spirit still seems to influence the work of all of the trackers I met.

Our guide led us as close as possible to the gorillas, all the while making deep grunting noises that the silverback seemed to take as a friendly gesture. He said he'd learned to communicate in a basic way with them over the years and felt as though he "knew" most of them.

To minimize the chance of passing along human colds or illnesses, tourists spend only an hour with the gorillas. It's a loose rule, though, and our tracker stretched the time about 30 minutes longer. I could have stayed all day.

After shifting position a couple of times as the group moved around the mountainside, we found ourselves sitting about 10 feet from the silverback and one of the mature females. Like a pleasantly comfortable married couple, the two lay next to each other as if exhausted from a morning of tending to a busy family. The female tenderly patted the silverback's arm and tugged bugs from his fur, and he responded with some guttural sweet nothings of his own.

We stayed just a little longer, and then our time was over. The hike back was strenuous, as we'd left the path once we found the gorillas, but the high of the experience gave us a kick of energy, and we couldn't wait to return to camp and share our stories with other travelers.

That night we sat around a bonfire with a group of Europeans who'd just rolled in and had permits to track the gorillas the next day. Just as previous travelers had hyped us for the "enchantment" to come, we glowed with our own new gorilla expertise.

We suggested that there might even be gorillas at the camp come morning and watched them marvel over the possibility.

By 6 a.m., I was up and packing my tent for the long road back to Kampala, but there were no gorillas in sight. Certainly they had been nearby earlier, though, because I could still smell them.

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Roughing it in Bwindi

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, double and triple connections to Entebbe, Uganda, the nearest airport to Kampala, are available on British, American, United, Lufthansa and Continental, with changes to other carriers for the final leg. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $3,726 until Jan. 6, then drop to $3,304. Expect to pay a $20 departure tax if you fly out of Uganda.

From Kampala, it's a two-day overland trip to Bwindi. If you don't have a private vehicle, "luxury" (but still crowded) buses run daily from Kampala to Kabale. They take about six hours and cost about $7.

SOLO OR GROUP?

I ventured to Uganda on a backpacker's budget. I slept in a tent when I could, hitched a few rides from fellow travelers, packed my own food and never spent more than $40 a night for lodging. In one week that included a few splurges for good meals and the $250 gorilla-tracking permit, I spent about $600 (excluding travel in and out of Uganda). Clean, moderately priced hotel rooms generally run around $30. Large, modern hotels in Kampala run about $100. Good meals can be had for less than $10.

The Community Campground at Bwindi National Park is one of several lodgings for gorilla trackers. Another campground sits just across the road, and there are a few luxury camps. Amenities range from spartan to opulent. The Community Campground offers tent sites as well as small enclosed bandas with beds, a roof and a concrete floor.

Many travel companies offer packages to Bwindi in which buying permits and arranging transportation and lodging are taken care of, a service that can be worth the expense. Among them (round-trip airfare is not included):

Natural Habitat Adventures, (800) 543-8917, http://www.nathab.com , offers an 11-day package (June, August and September next year) for about $6,400 that includes excursions to other Uganda sites.

Abercrombie & Kent, (800) 554-7016, http://www.abercrombiekent.com , has a Bwindi package with two days of gorilla tracking; it can be an add-on for other Africa trips. You spend three days in Bwindi, staying at Gorilla Forest Camp (www.sanctuarylodges.com). As an add-on, the trip, which also includes one night each way in Entebbe, begins about $2,500, double occupancy, plus internal airfare.

FURTHER DETAILS:

Visas: U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Uganda. Contact the Uganda Embassy, 5911 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20011; (202) 726-0416.

Permits: The Uganda Wildlife Authority issues only 12 tracking permits per day for Bwindi. They cost $250 and must be purchased through the wildlife authority's office in Kampala. It's best to buy your permit at least two weeks before your visit. If you use a tour operator to arrange your trip, it probably will be taken care of for you, but be sure to ask.

Health: See your doctor or a travel medicine clinic at least six weeks in advance. Make sure you inquire about cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, meningitis, hepatitis and malaria. You also can get information at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov .

TO LEARN MORE:

The Uganda Tourist Board, http://www.visituganda.com , lists many tour operators in a range of prices.

— Lara Weber

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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